Concert Review: The Mighty Mighty Bosstones — Beloved and Blistering

By Scott McLennan

It may sound oxymoronic, but the Bosstones scream, shout, and agitate for common decency.

The Mighty Mighty Bosstones at the House of Blues. Photo: Paul Robicheau.

The Mighty Mighty Bosstones kicked off the 22nd edition of their Hometown Throwdown event on Friday, Dec. 27, with a blistering show that doubled as a textbook example of how a former upstart artfully transitions into a beloved institution.

At face value, the Bosstones’ 25-song set, the first of a three-night stand at the House of Blues in Boston, had something for fans of every (plaid) stripe: the hits, the deep cuts, and the oddball covers that run through the band’s patented ska-core dynamics.

Dig a little deeper and you found the story of a bunch of guys who simply love playing music too much to think about hanging it up for good, even as tastes and trends have changed. Such songs as “Favorite Records,” “They Will Need Music,” and “Don’t Worry Desmond Dekker” explicitly celebrated the power of music to bring people together and to provide comfort in troubled times. The line between fan and family is mighty thin in the Bosstones universe and, judging by the audience packed into the House of  Blues, the band’s message resonates across generations.

Other songs such as “Kinder Words” and “Wonderful Day for the Race” tacitly set the framework for the band’s messages of unity, dignity, and respect. It may sound oxymoronic, but the Bosstones scream, shout, and agitate for common decency.

Even though the Bosstones came up at a time when ska-punk was sort of the soundtrack for juvenile delinquency, the band’s catalog is stuffed with tunes about making moral choices, reflections on the challenges that crop up every day. From the breakout hit “The Impression That I Get” to the riveting newer song “The Constant,” the Bosstones served up as much food for thought as fuel for moshing.

The material’s underlying sturdiness makes it possible for the Bosstones to credibly deliver the goods on stage without looking like the band members are clinging to a bygone era, even when there was a hint of lament for the past in the band’s dependable cover of the Dogmatics’ “(It Sure Don’t Feel Like) Xmas Time.”

Though the Bosstones do just a handful of shows each year, in addition to the holiday time Throwdowns, the band still sounded sharp. Singer Dicky Barrett remains a consummate front man, while the three-piece horn section laces the songs with frenetic riffs over simmering rhythms and chunky guitar licks.

The set on Night 1 of the Throwdown began with a pair of feel-good numbers, the seasonal “This Time of Year” and rarity “Where You Come From,” a deep cut off the Pay Attention album.

After a ripping version of the “The Rascal King”— the band’s ode to James Michael Curley– the Bosstones eased into a reggae groove with a cover of The Wailers’ “Simmer Down” and its own “The Route That I Took.”

The Mighty Mighty Bosstones at the House of Blues. Photo: Paul Robicheau.

The Bosstones then surveyed their vast catalog, reaching back to the early ska-core blueprints of “Devil’s Night Out” and “Dr. D” and airing such “modern” gems as “A Jackknife to a Swan” and “Everybody’s Better.”

Keyboard player John Goetchius moved into the spotlight for a run of songs that intentionally slowed the pace and let Barrett do more straight up singing than howling. The highlight here was a cover of Mike d’Abo’s “Handbags and Gladrags.’”

The three-song encore of “Old School Off the Bright,” “Nah, Nah, Nah, Nah, Nah,” and “Petty Sad Excuse” had a celebratory feel. The Bosstones seemed to know the mark had been hit: the homecoming tradition is as mighty as ever.

The Throwdowns have also become showcases for bands championed by the Bosstones. On Friday, local punk band the Art Thieves unleashed broadsides against the government (“I love my country, I hate the men who run it”), restoring some faith in rock’s role as protest music.

The Walker Roaders played an inspired set of Celtic-rooted agit-folk. Led by Pogues accordionist James Fearnley, the Walker Roaders bring together former Dropkick Murphys multi-instrumentalist Marc Orrell and former Flogging Molly guitarist Ted Hutt for inspired twists on the rootsy amalgam these guys have been trafficking in for years. The original numbers “Here Comes the Ice” and “Lord Randall’s Bastard Son” gave these talented musicians an opportunity to assert a fresh new identity.

Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to The Boston Globe, The Providence Journal, The Portland Press Herald and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene.

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